You can pinpoint the origins of Donald Ray Pollock’s literary genius directly to a town in Ohio called Knockemstiff. Pollock was born and raised there, and he worked in a nearby paper mill for three decades. With a population just under 60,000, Knockemstiff is the kind of town that you don’t typically find in contemporary American literary fiction; half-rotten by meth, starved for hope, and entirely broke, it’s about as far away from the world presented in Jonathan Franzen’s novels as you can imagine.
Pollock knew he wanted to be a writer, but he didn’t know how to be a writer. So he sat down in a chair at a typewriter—the secret to writing, he told me in an interview in 2008, is “I mean, you got to stay in the chair”—and typed out stories by Ernest Hemingway, John Cheever, and Richard Yates, word-for-word. “I wasn't really writing,” he explained. “I was trying to figure out what the fuck you'd do when you write.” Eventually, thanks to a program funded by the mill, he went to school part-time at Ohio State University and went on to get an MFA.
Pollock titled his first collection of stories Knockemstiff, and except for a piece of one story titled “Honolulu,” the entirety of the book takes place in the Ohio town of the title. The characters are blue collar, prone to eating bologna, given to occasional fits of violence. It was one of the best debuts of the first decade of the 21st century. His first novel, The Devil All the Time, is about a serial killer in Knockemstiff. And his newest novel, The Heavenly Table, tells the story of a family feud set in the early days of the 20th century.
All of Pollock’s interests are on display in Table: the effect of technology on work, the rippling impact of violence, the desperate decisions that lead to crimes, and the difference between the America of our dreams and the real America of the heartland. If this sounds way too serious, I’m failing at my job, because Pollock’s sense of humor is dark and broad; characters in this book are obsessed with a pulp fiction hero named Bloody Bill Bucket.
When Knockemstiff debuted, Pollock faced a lot of comparisons with Sherwood Anderson’s classic novel Winesburg, Ohio. It’s easy to see why those connections were made: big casts of interconnected characters, small-town America, Ohio. And Pollock himself seemed (rightfully) flattered by the comparison.
But if Pollock is a modern-day Anderson, it’s by way of authors like Harry Crews, Chuck Palahniuk, or the Bret Easton Ellis of American Psycho. While Pollock doesn’t revel in violence for entertainment’s sake, he’s not afraid to painstakingly lay out a gruesome scene in order to make a point. America’s heart has a hole in it, and the blood is getting absolutely everywhere.
Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, elliottbaybook.com . Free. All ages. Monday, July 25th at 7 p.m.